What is it about vaginal bleeding that makes everyone so horribly uncomfortable? Sure, it can be gross if you don’t like blood, but in the end it is still a biological process that roughly 50% of the population deals with. From advertisements of women frolicking in a meadow while supposedly on their period, to the micro aggressions that people who menstruate face every day, there are endless discussion points and plenty of social implications to talk about.
Though most people who possess uteri are knowledgeable about their inner workings, most cis men show a strong aversion to the topic. Why is this? Of course, there’s the whole idea that periods are like opening the floodgates to the red sea, but there are also many pesky social factors that allow for contempt to brew faster than a cup of coffee.
As Maria from The Sound of Music once said, “Let’s start at the very beginning”; that is, with the first period story: a tumultuous beginning to one woman’s relationship with her uterus.
Many of us can relate to unexpected surprises. When you get that uh-oh feeling down there for the first time. Most start their period around the age of 12… Ah, yes, sweaty palms and the squalour of middle school. So, I asked an assortment of young women to think back to their first time. Thankfully, they were eager to share their stories.
Even before starting the interview, Joan is a ball of enthusiasm; she gleefully shares, “It was probably the middle of Grade 7, and I was a big volleyball player… One of my first volleyball tournaments, I had those little spandex shorts, and I had to wear a pad… it was so awkward! I remember being so, like, ‘Mom, don’t talk to me, don’t even touch me, don’t come in!’” She continues, “I was ashamed of it; now I realize that.”
Katherine outlines her archetypal beginning of “womanhood” with a giggle. “When I was 11, I was at a sleep-away camp. Honestly, for the first few months, it was so light that I could keep a panty liner on for the duration. So, I was just really confused, like, ‘What is this?’ But it wasn’t bad, it was okay.”
Maria’s story takes a sombre twist. “It was September 17, 2009, and my grandfather was in the hospital. It was a Tuesday, and I went to school. It was recess when I realized that I had gotten my period. I passed a note to my friend, we got up, she went behind me, and we scooted down the hallway to the main office. I wore a kilt, so they gave me a new kilt from the lost and found and a pad, then later that day my grandfather passed away, and that’s why I remember the date.”
Ali describes her experience as embarrassing “I got it the summer after Grade 6. I was in Vancouver with my aunt, so my parents weren’t there. I went to the bathroom, and I saw it. [My aunt] went and got me a pad, then I called my mom and said, ‘Mom, you know the thing at the end of a sentence?’ She didn’t understand, but I wouldn’t say it. I was like, ‘Mom! Punctuation!’ She was like ‘Oh, Ali, that’s so nice! Let me put your dad on!’ I was like, ‘No! Mom, don’t!’”
Although these period memoirs are incredibly diverse, themes of awkwardness, confusion, and shame reoccur.
Changing her once-peppy tone to a more serious one, Joan addresses the stigma associated with periods: “One [thing] that bothers me is when someone dismisses your pain because it’s ‘just your period,’ and that it’s something to be ashamed of and it’s something you have to keep quiet. It’s a very direct extension of the patriarchy. It’s [cis] men telling women how to feel, and that their experiences aren’t valid and important.”
Katherine brings up a sensitive cultural issue. “I had a friend in high school who was Sri Lankan, and every time she got out of the car when she was on her period, her dad would clean the seats. In some cultures it is considered very dirty. I think it plays into the whole, ‘women are supposed to be seen as clean and dainty,’ but losing copious amounts of blood out of your vagina doesn’t really go along with that.”
With a hint of agitation in her voice, Maria declares, “People are like, ‘You must be PMS-ing,’ when you talk about literally anything with a little more passion than usual. It feels sort of crappy that everything about a cis woman is tied to her boobs or her vagina.”
Ali pauses for a beat to think before answering. Then, she stresses, “People think it’s really gross, and that we have a lot of mood swings, which may or may not be true, but when I’m moody, it’s not because I’m on my period. The stigmas are to make women feel awkward, to make them feel ashamed of the fact that you’re on your period. It makes it harder for young girls.”
These aggressions have been absorbed into our societal values and are constantly pounded into our minds through the media and societal norms.
We’ve all seen those ridiculous advertisements for “feminine hygiene” products featuring women frolicking in meadows. Maria comments, “I understand that mostly the ads are trying to be, like, ‘With this product you will be able to frolic in a meadow,’ but I don’t think it is helpful. There’s this expectation for you to be hiding it, and the ads don’t quite address the reality of a period.”
Considering this idea of addressing the reality of a period, Ali suggests, “Society does these nice commercials so [cis] guys won’t feel uncomfortable if they see them. It doesn’t help people, because it is not how anyone is feeling. I think a nice commercial would be maybe someone crying, really upset, and they’d be like ‘It’s okay, this is normal.’ We shouldn’t try to make accommodations, or hide what it’s really about from boys.”
Joan confesses, “Part of growing up and learning about feminism has really ended [the shame].” Ali adds, “Some [cis] guys make it awkward because they don’t want to hear about it, they think it’s gross, but as I got older it got less awkward.”
People who menstruate shouldn’t have to sugar-coat their natural bodily processes to make cis men feel comfortable. Social progress happens with maturity, truth, and an open mind. So by being transparent about periods, we are creating an opening for cis men to experience and understand what they’re all about. Periods aren’t just going to go away, so it’s about time that we break down the stigmas surrounding them, because we’re all stuck in this menstrual cycle together.
Some names have been changed to protect privacy.